tv Sino News Magazine PBS March 6, 2011 8:30pm-9:00pm PST
[placid instrumental music] ♪ >> let's begin the bidding on ludwig mies van der rohe's the farnsworth house: $3,500,000. >> baer: a one-of-a-kind glass house with a history of love affairs, lawsuits, and natural disasters, its future rests on the outcome of this high-stakes auction. >> $3,700,000; $3,800,000. >> this was a significant piece of architecture. it had to be saved. >> $6,000,000. >> it's a complete and total
architectural philosophy distilled into one beautiful little box. >> baer: what makes this piece of architecture such a hot commodity, and why would these people stake their entire organization on saving it? wow. let's go there and see for ourselves. [dramatic music] ♪ the farnsworth house is one of only three single-family homes in the united states by renowned german architect ludwig mies van der rohe. mies, as he's usually referred to, was already nearing legendary status when he fled nazi germany for the u.s. in 1938. a one-time director of the
celebrated bauhaus architecture school, mies is widely acknowledged as the founder of the glass and steel modernist style. some 60 miles southwest of chicago, the farnsworth house is nestled along the banks of the fox river in plano, illinois. >> the farnsworth house is considered to be one of the most celebrated examples of modernist domestic architecture. >> baer: i begin my visit with a guided tour. >> there it is. >> baer: wow. >> everyone goes, "ohh!" >> baer: in designing a simple open space with no decoration, mies said he was trying to create almost nothing, or in german, "bei nahe nichts." >> it's very important to keep in mind, this house was designed as a weekend home only, to be used by one individual. >> baer: thank you. >> mm-hmm. >> baer: that individual was mies' client dr. edith farnsworth
their story begins in downtown chicago in 1945. dr. farnsworth, a well-to-do kidney specialist, had just bought herself a chunk of land along the fox river. 42 and single, she was looking for an architect to help her build a small weekend getaway there. but some say her interest in mies van der rohe went beyond architecture. to get the real story on mies and edith, i talked to june finfer, who wrote a play about their relationship. so how did they meet? >> mies van der rohe and edith farnsworth met at a small dinner party, and i suspect that she arranged to meet him. >> baer: at dinner, edith found herself intrigued with the 59-year-old architectural heavyweight sitting silently across from her. >> so she's having dinner with
this guy, and she's telling him all about this beautiful property with the great trees and the birds and the river, and he doesn't say a word. she didn't know if he spoke english. but then when she said, "do you know someone who could design a house for me?" he very much surprised her by saying, "i could do it myself." >> baer: for a woman who described herself as "bored and lonely," the chance to work with a charismatic man like mies van der rohe was irresistible. >> she just was overwhelmed with the possibilities, with his personality, and with the potential to create, as she said, "something that would advance the art of architecture." >> baer: and advance it, they did. mies not only took the job. he decided to use the opportunity to do something he'd never done before. >> the two of them came out here to this area, and he told her that in view of
the country around here, which he found quite lovely, he thought it would be a great idea to do a house through which you could see the nature around you. and the glass house was the consequence. >> baer: a glass house: it would be a first, but why not? what better way for edith to take in the beauty of her surroundings? >> when you're inside, it's like you're outside, because you're looking through the glass, and you're seeing these trees, and you're seeing the river, and you're seeing the sky. it's like there's no separation. >> baer: the entire structure is held up by just eight steel i beams. a terrace extends from the west end, creating a link from the inside to the outside. so what's the philosophy behind this big, empty, open space? >> less is more,
less intrusion inside. he was fascinated by spaces in which you could do just about anything. >> baer: it's architecture reduced to its barest minimum: a steel-framed slab of concrete for the roof, a thin membrane of glass for the walls, and another slab of concrete covered in heated travertine marble for the floor. in the center, a core made of rare primavera wood houses two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a utility room. a single tube containing all of the utilities descends from the home's center into the ground. and that's it. mies even anticipated the fox river's annual spring swell. he elevated the house more than
five feet above the ground. as the blueprint evolved, so did the partnership between the married architect who'd left his family years earlier and his single client. soon it became more than just a business arrangement. there's no real tactful way to ask this question. do you think they had a love affair? >> oh, i think so. what is more exciting than to have someone who is becoming world-renowned for his work and he's interested in you? and you are making it possible for him to create something that has never been created before. >> baer: edith tucked hand-written notes into envelopes along with her checks to mies. one such missive reads: "dear mies, it is impossible to pay in money for what is made by heart and soul. such work one can only recognize and cherish
with love and respect." >> he was, after all, a man of substance. he was a very attractive man. she was transfixed by him. >> baer: while the relationship flourished, word traveled of the incredible feat mies van der rohe was undertaking along the fox river. >> this house became so famous, even while it was under construction. people kept coming around, students and architects and visitors. >> baer: to many of these visitors, the farnsworth house seemed like the perfect distillation of modernist architecture. >> you have a beautiful context and a house in which mies used all of his ability with the materials that he was so good at, namely steel and glass. >> baer: but as with any construction project, there were delays. edith started to get impatient, and she wasn't exactly thrilled by the rapidly rising costs.
>> she had formed the impression that the building would be built for x amount of dollars, and that amount went continually up, and she became more and more irritated with mies. >> baer: their personal relationship started to deteriorate. not only was edith irritated with mies. she was quickly becoming disillusioned with his big ideas about pure architecture. >> she started thinking about practical things and started saying, "i can't even put a garbage can by the kitchen sink, because you can see it from the outside. where am i going to hang my clothes? there's no closet here." and he says, "what do you need a closet for? it's a weekend house." and she said, "well, i need someplace to put my clothes." >> baer: finally mies assigned an associate to build her a wardrobe. but to edith, he was clearly becoming more interested in the house than he was in her. their tiff over the closet soon became a very public debate of purity versus practicality,
an architect versus jilted client. you have to sympathize with edith just a little. you know, a person living in a house needs a place to hang their clothes. they need a closet. there are bugs outside. you need screens. how can you separate a work of architecture from the use to which that architecture's going to be put? >> that didn't bother mies. this is--this is fundamentally a perfect abstraction, so to speak. of course it's a beautiful residence, but it's a beautiful residence by virtue of his ignoring some of the things that most people would not be able to live without. >> there's always those competing visions of, "is it a pure work of art, or does somebody have to cook breakfast?" >> baer: 1951: after three long years of construction, the house was finally complete. but mies and edith were barely on speaking terms. communication between the two
now consisted mainly of cold, clipped, typewritten letters: "no further financial commitments can be endorsed beyond the amount quoted in your statement of august 1st. sincerely yours, edith b. farnsworth, m.d." the final cost: $73,000, nearly double what they'd agreed on. >> it all came to a head when she had told him to stop any more building, that she didn't want to pay any more. he sued her for the moneys that she hadn't paid. >> baer: not one to shrink from a fight, edith countersued, and later, she vented her rage to house beautiful magazine in a biting editorial entitled, "the threat to the next america." it appeared in april 1953. >> farnsworth was interviewed by a woman by the name of elizabeth gordon, who published an article in which she said, "there is a woman being obliged
to live in this all-glass house, one room, done by an architect who treats her as if he were a dictator." >> baer: gordon even compared the farnsworth house to the looming threat of communism. >> she said, "if you can do without personal things, you're open for a dictator. if you don't have belongings, you're obviously a communist, right? >> baer: edith may have won the media war, but mies won the lawsuit in 1953. yet he never again saw his creation. before long, the new homeowner started to discover just how famous her house was. edith, she had some privacy issues living in a glass house, didn't she? >> yes, she did. she--she's--the story has it that when she would go out of the bathroom, she'd look out the window, and here's about 25 people aiming their cameras.
>> baer: tourists. >> tourists. >> they would climb over the fence. they would come across the river on a boat from the park, and they would want to see this icon. as soon as it was created, it drew the world. >> baer: one such curious visitor was none other than mies' own grandson, chicago architect dirk lohan. >> i was eager to see the farnsworth house that i had only seen in pictures, and together with some friends from the architecture school, we drove out there one day. >> baer: but lohan had a little trouble getting close enough for a good look. >> edith farnsworth was in the house, and she took out her binoculars and followed us. and it was literally impossible to approach the house. she was going like this, and as we walked around this way, she was over there, you know, following us. >> baer: after living in her so-called glass cage
for nearly 20 years, farnsworth put her controversial weekend house on the market in 1968. dirk lohan remembers sharing this news with his ailing grandfather. >> he always thought it would be wonderful if he could be somewhere out in the country in nature. and i suggested to him, "how about buying the farnsworth house?" but he wouldn't have anything to do with it. >> baer: after nearly two decades, the bad memories were still too strong for mies. eventually edith did sell the house. >> mm-hmm. she sold the house to peter palumbo, who was a british developer who had, during his school years, seen a photograph of this house and fallen in love with it. >> baer: palumbo, a british lord, took ownership in 1972, three years after mies' death. he finally realized mies' dream by furnishing the house
as the architect intended with the help of dirk lohan. >> he asked me to fix it and maintain it, which, for a number of years, i did for him. he spared no expense. he wanted to do it right. >> i think it's safe to say that he was the ideal tenant. he had the grounds redone. he took very good care of it. [thunder booming] >> baer: but palumbo couldn't protect the house from mother nature when the fox river flooded in 1996. mies built the house several feet above the ground to keep it safe from floods. >> correct. >> baer: not high enough, right? >> it was an extraordinary flood of biblical measure. 18 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period. >> baer: increased development along the fox river left floodwater with no place to go but up. >> luckily, one of the windows broke, and the water flooded into the house.
if that had not happened, the house would have risen with the water like a boat and been pulled out of the ground and maybe floated away. >> baer: priceless artwork was sucked out through the broken window, never to be seen again. >> it left a terrible film of mud all over the floor, destroyed all the furniture that was there, the rugs that were there. it cost palumbo $1/2 million to restore it, seven times what edith farnsworth paid for the house. >> baer: 2003: the farnsworth house made headlines yet again. peter palumbo was putting it up for auction with a projected price tag of $7.5 million. >> peter palumbo decided that
he had to sell the house. he was having health problems, financial problems. he wanted and needed a quick sale. >> baer: david bahlman is the president of landmarks illinois. he knew that a quick sale to the wrong kind of buyer might be a disastrous thing for preservationists like him. after a deal with the state to buy the house fell through, bahlman joined forces with landmark's chairman, joe antunovich, the national trust for historic preservation, and renowned philanthropist john bryan. >> i've just never seen anything more beautiful. there's just nothing that had more influence on the architecture of the 20th century than did the farnsworth house, in my judgment. >> baer: together they hatched a plan to buy the farnsworth house and turn it into a museum, but it wasn't going to be easy. >> when we heard the house was going to be sent to sotheby's, we called peter palumbo immediately and made an offer.
we actually made two offers, and they were refused by peter. >> baer: the illinois preservationists now had no other choice but to join the bidding war. but to win the farnsworth house at auction, they'd have to raise an enormous amount of money in very little time. when a property's being sold at auction, that's really bad for the preservationists, right? >> it's very bad, because you only have a few months to come up with the money to buy it if you intend to buy it. generally, preservationists work on a much longer time frame. >> baer: adding to the challenge, the group had some serious competition from private buyers. >> we were going to go to that auction, buy the house, and run it as a public museum. but a real issue had emerged, which became very clear that some of the buyers out there felt that this house was portable, that people were looking to basically throw it in the back of a u-haul and take it to their home
in greenwich. >> i feared very much that one of the super wealthy of our time would treat this as a transportable trophy piece of art. >> baer: sotheby's even made the portability of the farnsworth house a selling point by posting on its website this 3-d animation of the home being dismantled. move the farnsworth house out of illinois? >> i think it would be a little bit awkward, if not ridiculous, to put that house where it never floods and nobody would understand why it's on stilts. >> the essence of the house is its transparency to this site. >> if the building were removed from this site, it simply wouldn't make any sense anymore. >> baer: for the preservationists, it was a call to battle. >> there were sort of two people that came to our rescue when the issue of the portability of the house came out. one group were art collectors, art dealers, people in the architectural world who had a lot of money.
but there was another group of people, mainly businessmen in chicago, who viewed this as an issue of cultural theft. >> baer: what do you mean by "cultural theft"? >> well, it's sort of the view-- a lot of the chicago civic groups that were supportive of us, they viewed this as a bunch of new yorkers coming into chicago and trying to steal something that didn't belong to them. >> when we organized to raise the money, we tried to make the point that it would be destructive to disassemble it. >> baer: people from all over the country were inspired by the cause. donations began pouring in, but could the dollars add up fast enough? >> we only had eight weeks to raise an amount of money that we thought would do the job. >> baer: time is dwindling, and the fate of the farnsworth house hangs in the balance. december 12, 2003: in a skybox high above the auction floor, the preservationists wait for bidding to begin.
and with just hours to go, they're still working to raise money. >> it was an enormously exciting day. over half of the money was raised in the last seven to eight hours before the auction. >> baer: at the last minute, they convinced key donors to give $2 million more to the cause by stressing the value of 38 acres of land that come with the house. but as the auction begins, the group is still short of the predicted selling price. >> you could sense immediately that this had a lot of national attention, and i remember thinking, "man, i do not want to go down in front of these people, losing this shot." >> for your consideration, lot 800: ludwig mies van der rohe's the farnsworth house. let's begin the bidding at $3,500,000, at $3,500,000. $3,600,000. >> baer: over the next seven minutes, bidding plays out fast and furious.
>> $3,700,000; $3,800,000. $4,300,000; $4,400,000. >> baer: renowned chicago art dealer richard gray is the man bidding on behalf of the preservationists. >> next bid at $4,700,000. >> baer: a master of the game, gray has won several high-profile auctions in the past. >> we were in a skybox sort of, and i was talking on the telephone to the president of the auction house, who was conveying the bids of the auctioneer. >> 4.8: $4,800,000. $5,500,000. $6,000,000. >> baer: as the bids go even higher... >> $6,100,000. >> baer: the group throws in its last dollars. >> 6.6: with bill at $6,600,000. >> baer: but the preservationists are quickly outbid. >> 6.650: i'll take 6.650, $6,650,000. >> baer: there's nothing left. the group has reached its limit. you were out of money. >> we were out of money.
i was pretty dis-- i was pretty disappointed. >> baer: but then richard gray surprises everyone when he starts to bid again. >> will you say $6,700,000? bill said $6,700,000. >> we weren't through, and i was still playing the game. >> we just immediately grabbed richard and said, you know, "you're on your own, sir." >> baer: in a last-ditch effort to win, gray is kicking in his own money. >> richard just grinned and winked, and he kept going. it just seemed like right after that, the hammer came down. >> $6,700,000. sold. [applause] >> at that moment, it all let loose. everybody was very excited and on their feet. >> 14 people gyrating and screaming and hugging each other. >> baer: against all odds, the illinois preservationists have won, and the farnsworth house will stay where it is. >> you really staked a lot on this house.
you must have some very strong personal feelings about it. >> it was elation of an incredible level. a board member of mine called me. he said, "there's nothing for you to do now but go out and get the best meal you can possibly get, and then buy a gun and shoot yourself, because it's not going to get any better. >> i remember the day after we closed at the auction, we got a call from the caretaked who just showed up at the gate. and they'd heard about the auction. they'd hoped we had won and wanted to know if they could get in. and we let them in. and it's been that way ever since, people coming from all over the world and all over the county, all over the state, all over the country to visit. >> that original nine acres. this row of trees... >> it's almost overwhelming to see this house and to finally get to be here. >> baer: what's the value of having this house open to the public as a museum? >> it's open six days a week to people from all over the world. until you see this house, you don't understand
what the best of modernism is all about. it's a complete and total architectural philosophy distilled into one beautiful little box. i think it's a great success. it's a national treasure, and it's been saved. >> the preservationists believed very strongly in keeping it in its original setting. we are most fortunate they were able to do so. >> baer: the farnsworth house is now owned by the national trust for historic preservation and is operated and managed by landmarks illinois. since the auction, it's been listed on the national register of historic places and been designated a national historic landmark. >> i think of the house not only as an important piece of architecture in the history of architecture but as a architectural poem. it's exciting, exhilarating to be there, and if you let it into your emotions, you can